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Erasing the Stigma

Through tattoo removal, Pescetti aims to provide youth with a fresh start.

Pat Mazzera

Before John Pescetti ’90 turned to medicine, his career path took a number of surprising turns—each aimed at achieving his main goal, he says: “…to help my fellow human beings.” Today he continues that quest by removing tattoos from former gang members and disadvantaged youths in an effort to help them transform their lives.

Pescetti, 62, first studied for the priesthood before switching course to pursue a psychology degree. He worked in a state mental hospital and then sought a nursing degree. After seven years as a pediatric nurse he entered Hopkins’ medical school at age 35. Here he met Catherine DeAngelis, another Italian-American and one-time nurse, who became his mentor. (She also was the pediatrician for his children.)

Although tattoo removal has occupied only a fraction of Pescetti’s time—one evening a month for the past 11 years—it can have a profound impact on the lives of those who enroll in Project New Start at La Clínica de la Raza in Oakland, Calif., where he has worked for two decades. He estimates he has removed up to 1,200 tattoos, all for free if the patients, ages 15 to 25, perform community service, work with a mentor, and “keep clean.”

It is a time-consuming, painful process that can take up to two years. “It’s a long commitment,” Pescetti says, but the young people who go through it are eager to erase the “definite stigma” of having visible tattoos. During and after undergoing the tattoo removal, “they can go out and feel good about getting jobs.”

“It’s a reminder for them to keep going … things are going to be better, and I think that’s often an important message.”

Erasing the Stigma

“It’s a reminder for them to keep going … things are going to be better.”